Whatever your reason for booking a last-minute flight, you can bet it won’t be cheap. Airlines sure know how to stick-it-to-you when you need a quick ticket.
According to CheapAir, booking a flight within 14 days of departure will run you an extra $111 on average, compared to flights booked well in advance. If you wait just 7 days before your flight, you will pay $178 more on average. Moral of the story, it is almost NEVER ideal to book a last-minute flight.
As we know, booking a last-minute flight may not be a choice as much as it is a necessity. Whether it is due to a family emergency, change of plans, or even a spontaneous getaway, nobody likes forking over extra money.
Flexibility is your best friend. You’d be shocked by how much money you can save by flying in or out of a nearby airport. One of the best tools for finding nearby flight alternatives is Google Matrix ITA. Begin by inputting your desired start and end airport or city name. Once those fields are inputted, you will click the “nearby” button and choose the distance range to search.
If you choose ’75 miles’ you should see a list of nearby airports to choose from. For my example, I chose San Jose to Reagan D.C. airport. I also selected all airports within 75 miles of Reagan to broaden my flight options.
The cheapest flight from San Jose to Reagan D.C. was $398 one-way, five days in advance (with two layovers). Holy crap that is a lot.
By searching nearby options I was able to find a one-way flight from San Jose to Baltimore-BWI for $291, with just one layover. That is a savings of $107 on just one leg of your trip. Baltimore is a $7 ~ 45 minute train ride away from D.C. via the Penn Line.
Throw it away
Another option for saving money on last-minute flights is called “hidden city ticketing”. This is using a layover as your desired destination. You just leave the airport on your layover and “throw away” your last ticket. If you are trying to Get from A to B for the cheapest amount possible, sometimes it is cheaper to book at flight from A to B to C. You just won’t board your “C” flight.
The two main catches to this method is that you CANNOT check bags and you must book two one-way tickets. If you can manage those two caveats, there is a good chance you can save money on a last-minute flight.
Connect the dots
Using the ITA Matrix, you will select “advance routing codes”. In the second field you will type in “x:” and then add the airport code for where you ACTUALLY want to go. If you need to get to Charlotte, you will type in “x:clt” for your connection. In the destination field just type in any other airport near Charlotte and then choose “nearby” selecting all airports within 1,000 miles.
What you are doing at this point is searching flights to any airport on the East Coast that have a layover in Charlotte. (Charlotte would be the connection city where you actually want to go).
Keep in mind this works best when the city you want to fly into is a hub airport, such as Charlotte for American Airlines. If you are trying to fly into a very small airport, there probably won’t be any connecting flights through that small airport, thus not practical for hidden city ticketing.
I was able to find a flight from Phoenix to Atlanta with a connection in Charlotte for $172 one-way. That same flight, which leaves at 5:05AM, would cost an astronomical $784 if I booked a convention flight from Phoenix to Charlotte. Booking a flight to Atlanta with a stop in Charlotte saves you about $600. When you land in Charlotte, you will just “throw away” your second ticket to Atlanta. And there you have it, you made it to Charlotte as your connection city.
There is a minute chance that the airline could change your layover city, since they are only required to get you to Atlanta. I’ve flown 300 flights +, many with connections, and I’ve never had my connection city changed on me. Just thought I’d point it out nevertheless.
Last Minute Re-positioning
Another way to save money on last-minute flights is to use a “positioning flight”. A positioning flight is one that gets you to a random airport only to catch a separate flight to your real destination. Think of it as building your own layover with any airline and any city (whatever happens to be the cheapest)
The way I start my search is to use Google Flight’s map search. Enter your starting airport and then click on the map to see the cheapest flight to each airport. Once you set a price cap, look for a cheap airport in your direction of travel. Let’s say I am trying to get from Phoenix to Milwaukee last-minute, I would look for cheap flights somewhere towards the Midwest on my way to Milwaukee.
I was able to find an $99 flight from Phoenix to Dallas. That gets me about halfway to Milwaukee, which is the idea behind positioning flights. The next step is to see if there are cheap flights from Dallas to Milwaukee. Keep in mind the cheapest conventional flight from Phoenix to Milwaukee would be $366, that is why you should build your own flights.
One plus One equals, cheaper
As you can see by booking two completely separate tickets, one to Dallas and one to Milwaukee, you are able to save $158 one-way. This doesn’t work in every instance, and you do have to be flexible on total travel time, but $158 is a good chunk of cash. (and even more savings if you are flying with others)
Two things to note;
–If you check a bag you will have to check it twice since these are completely separate tickets. I advice against checking a bag in this instance
–Your first flight could be delayed causing you to miss your second flight. Make sure to schedule plenty of time between your flights allowing for delays. If you don’t show up for your second flight, for whatever reason, you will lose out. I recommend a two-hour layover just to be safe, three hours if you choose to check your bag. At some airports you must go back through security to connect with another airline, something else to keep in mind.
What’s the point
Don’t forget to check flight availability when using your points. American Airlines, like others, do have a $75 fee if you book using points within 21 days of your flight. It’s never fun to pay $75 but if there is availability on your desired flight, you could save well over $75 to offset the fee.
24 Hours of Grace
All flights booked within the US (with cash NOT with points), can be cancelled up to 24 hours after booking for a full refund. There is a catch to this rule, the flight date must be more than 7 days out. If you book a very last-minute flight with cash, you will be waiving your right to cancel the ticket within 24 hours of booking. If you book 10 days before your flight, be sure to check for better or cheaper flight choices within your 24 hour cancellation window.